Some of Britain's most prestigious tourist attractions, including Canterbury Cathedral and Buckingham Palace, are rip-offs, according to the Consumers' Association.
Next week the Association will publish its first guide for tourists, modelled on its Good Food Guide, which will give marks out of five to leading sites, according to three categories: quality of attraction; standard of facilities; and value for money.
Canterbury Cathedral is described as "grasping", Buckingham Palace "inhuman", while Dorchester's Dinosaur Museum is just plain "amateurish". Brighton's Sea Life Centre suffers from fish tanks without explanation and a "depressing cafÃ© with its peeling walls", while Bamburgh Castle in Northumberland "leaves the visitor more depressed on exit than on entry".
The guide covers more than 300 attractions ranging from castles to zoos and from museums to theme parks. Its gripes include stingy discounts for children and extra charges for parking, guidebooks and guided tours alongside the basic entrance fee. "Bored, negative" staff are another bugbear - one inspector was called stupid by staff at Marwell Zoo, Hampshire, for asking where disabled visitors parked.
Inspectors also grumble about dining facilities with "too many places relying on second-rate fast food", while toilets and litter are another pet hate. "Overflowing bins by midday at the Dome are not a pretty sight, and a blocked toilet, no soap and cigarette butts in the urinals at Blackpool Tower were the pits," says the guide.
Canterbury Cathedral gets special criticism for its less than Christian attitude towards charging. While visitors to York Minster enjoy free entrance and free guided tours, Canterbury Cathedral is branded "grasping".
"You have to pay to enter the precinct, let alone the church, and they even charged [20p] for the toilets - and then you exit through a large gift shop," bemoaned the inspector. Labelling, meanwhile, is "poor to non-existent" and guided tours cost an extra £3.50.
Buckingham Palace receives the minimum one star out of five for quality. "If you're expecting an insight into the life and times of the Royal Family, you're likely to be severely disappointed," says the book.
However, Hampton Court, another royal palace, scores top marks for value for money and quality and features among the top 10 tourist attractions.
The wide variety of standards has prompted calls by the Consumers' Association for a national grading system. But its demands are fiercely opposed by the tourism industry, which claims such comparisons are meaningless.
"The attractions industry is very sensitive and this book is embarrassing for a lot of places," said Kim Winter, the guidebook's editor. "These attractions cost an awful lot of money to visit. And yet the attractions industry doesn't care about the consumer. They just think, if people go somewhere and don't like it, well, tough, they made the wrong choice."
She singled out Buckingham Palace as her least favourite attraction. "They have just taken the money and run," complained Ms Winter, while what stood out among the best sites was "the calibre of the staff and the imagination that has gone into the places".
There is no clear connection linking the bottom-ranked sites. Some receive huge public subsidies - such as the lottery-funded Earth Centre in Doncaster (one star for quality and one for value for money) - while others, such as the Dinosaur Museum in Dorchester ("it has the feel of a temporary exhibition") get none.
The Dome does averagely well, with three out of five for quality, four out of five for facilities but just two out of five for value for money.
Highlights include the "outside view of the Dome" and the play and journey zones, but drawbacks include the queues, the high entrance price and the variable quality of the other zones - it brands the learning, money, faith and work zones as "missable".
Ms Winter's advice is to visit the National Maritime Museum around the corner in Greenwich, instead. It picks up top marks in all three categories.
The English Tourism Council, a newly formed quango, is refusing to introduce a comprehensive grading system, although it is trialling a voluntary scheme in certain regions.
ETC's Mary Lane said: "We are increasingly concerned about the rising number of tourist attractions coming on stream in England and, at best, static consumer demand. Many attractions have high fixed costs and we are concerned about falling reinvestment levels and the effect this is having on the quality of attractions."
'The Which? Guide to Tourist Attractions', £12.99, is available from bookshops from 7 April.
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